Expanding With a Business Alliance

Buying Your Way to the Top

While some entrepreneurs find a partner through serendipity, others take a much more studied approach. Nancy Michaels, president of the Lexington, Massachusetts, consulting company Impression Impact, was casting about for a place to offer her small-business seminar, "Creative Marketing Strategies." After some research, she saw that Office Depot was trying to differentiate itself from competing office-supply chains. "Just looking at the Office Depot Web site, you can see they want to add value to their small-business customers," says Michaels, 39. "They want to provide knowledge and expertise."

As an entrepreneur, Michaels lives by one rule: Go to the highest-ranking person in an organization for a decision. So when she came up with the idea to give seminars in the Office Depot retail space, she decided to speak to Office Depot CEO Bruce Nelson. But how does a small-business owner meet with a captain of industry? In Michaels' case, by bidding a thousand dollars at a charity auction in January of this year to have lunch with him.

Michaels heard Nelson speak at an event set up by the Women's Business Enterprise Council (WBENC) and Office Depot in Boca Raton, Florida. At the event's silent auction fund-raiser, she bid $1,050 for lunch with Nelson.

At the ensuing lunch two months later, Michaels pitched Nelson on her idea: She'd give small-business seminars at Office Depot retail sites. Offering business classes could make Office Depot a regular destination for more current and potential customers each week. Attendees would be charged a small fee for the class and given in excess of that value in Office Depot coupons, another incentive to buy in the store.

Starting at the top worked. From her meeting with CEO Nelson, Michaels then met Office Depot president of North American stores Jerry Colley and worked out a verbal agreement to test the in-store seminars. "The key to selling the idea of an alliance is doing your homework," says Ian MacMillan, professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School in Philadelphia. "Spend time getting to know all your putative partners, then carefully target the potential partner that best fits your needs. Then spend time putting together a professional pitch showing why the two of you fit."

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This article was originally published in the March 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Gold Bond.

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